Doing anything from hilling potatoes to rabbit-proofing the gate to staking up pepper plants, to watering and weeding, about 200 volunteers from the Paynesville area are committed to their Food Shelf Garden on the outskirts of town.
Last year, the garden — four-fifths of an acre in size — yielded 8,600 pounds of produce, which was donated to the Paynesville Community Service Center, a non-profit organization that provides a food shelf, clothing, furniture, toiletries and other items to those in need. An estimated 100 families benefited from the harvest.
Seventeen 200-foot rows include cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, eggplant, watermelon, kohlrabi, carrots, beets, peas, onions, green beans, broccoli, cabbage and peppers as well as separate areas for herbs, flowers, rhubarb, asparagus and fruit trees.
Sometimes with only a few moment’s notice, Molly Zimmerman, co-coordinator of the Food Shelf Garden, dons her volunteer T-shirt with the words, “Plant a Row, Help it Grow! Donate, Feel Great!” and dashes over to the garden to meet other volunteers who have come to help.
Zimmerman sold vegetables as a child. For her, it was the highlight of the summer.
“The inspiration for the Food Shelf Garden was born of a lifetime of enjoying gardening and fresh produce in our own family,” Zimmerman said.
In 2008, after a conversation with Allison Janssen, Community Service Center director, Zimmerman learned that the number of families coming for food had doubled from 100 to 200 families.
Zimmerman’s husband, Randy, a local family practice physician at CentraCare Health, also recognized that many of his patients couldn’t afford healthy foods or were unable to have a garden.
“We felt sad that so many people in our own community might not have enough food to eat,” Molly Zimmerman said. “In the middle of the most productive farmland in the world, it seemed that growing our own food to donate made sense. That’s when we began dreaming of a Food Shelf Garden. There are many generous gardeners in the area donating produce, but we were hoping to create a steady supply every year.”
The community garden began in the fall of 2013 when Paynesville Township gave approval to use the land near an outdoor hockey arena. The garden garnered tons of support from the community.
“Many people stepped forward, donating everything gardeners would need,” Zimmerman said. “We received money from many private donors, local businesses, the Lions, Lutheran Endowment Fund and [Catholic Relief Services] Rice Bowl.”
The garden, which Zimmerman co-coordinates with Butch Mueller, started small in the first season.
“Butch is a lot of the brains behind the garden. He knew how to do a lot of things I didn’t. He first saw me struggling with sprinklers and helped install a drip line,” Zimmerman said. “As people recognized what we were trying to do, they stepped forward to help.”
In addition to the over 300 volunteers the garden had last year and the estimated 1,080 hours of volunteer service they provided, Zimmerman’s entire family has grown to love the garden, too.
“Our family has been so blessed in being part of God’s works of mercy,” Zimmerman said. “Without their encouragement and resourcefulness, this Food Shelf Garden could not have happened.”
Rheanne, the Zimmermans’ oldest daughter, designed and maintains the Service Center’s website and still updates the “garden tab” from her home in Michigan. Their son Bradley, before moving to college, took on heavy jobs like weed trimming, fence pole pounding and tilling.
Another daughter, Ginelle, has come home for summer break from medical school and spent many hours in the garden, hauling in buckets of vegetables in the trailer. And their son Cory and his friends, Wyatt and Elise Schmidt, have come almost every Tuesday and Thursday for the past four years to work two or three hours each week.
“Elise, Wyatt and Cory not only know how to grow, harvest and nurture the plants, they are also our student treasurers, helping to prepare the annual budget. They are also great at leading and teaching the Paynesville school students from the summer program when they come,” Molly Zimmerman said.
Local elementary school teacher, Robyn Spaeth and her family have been involved in the garden from the beginning and she is “responsible for creating a vital partnership with the school to bring children on a regular basis to help,” Zimmerman said.
“My love for gardening and my desire to teach students how to grow things was my initial interest,” Spaeth said. “Many students come to school without knowing where potatoes come from. How do you grow onions? How do you pick peas and beans and cauliflower and broccoli? I had a desire to help those that were less fortunate and those that wanted to learn.”
Spaeth has seen the garden evolve over the years. One particular connection that excites her has been involving students from the elementary school to plant and harvest the garden.
“We had help and support of the fourth- and fifth-grade students at Paynesville Elementary. We had the support of our staff and principal as well. The students are so excited. They have so much energy. They really are our legs and back and hands on days when we are tired,” Spaeth said.
Throughout the summer, they have another group of students from the school’s summer program who come to the garden once a week.
“[They help] with weeding and now some harvesting. Again, they are invaluable. It has been hard work. We want to serve and do things with Christ in mind. This has been our main vision,” Spaeth said.
The garden receives funds from the local Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl Lenten program, an initiative supported by the St. Cloud Mission Office.
“The Rice Bowl collection is designed so that 75 percent of what our parishioners contribute is sent internationally to alleviate hunger while 25 percent remains locally within our own diocese to assist with any form of hunger alleviation programs,” said Mission Office Director Elizabeth Neville.
“Grant requests are sent to our office by food shelves, parishes, backpack programs and farmers markets,” she said. “Local CRS Director Father Bill Vos and I evaluate and assess the need and what we are able to contribute. All of these requests are based on the alleviation of hunger within our diocese.
“Because the need is so great for natural, healthy and locally grown foods to meet the needs of many different cultures and people, the food shelf garden is an excellent recipient of the grant funds. They are producing and distributing in abundance,” Neville said.
Zimmerman said the garden, where she often prays, is a metaphor for life.
“It has become a garden of trust,” she said. “It does as well as it does because God sends what we need exactly when we need it — the people, the resources, the rain when we need it — just as in life.
“I also think God wants us to show our love firsthand,” she said. “It’s a whole different statement when people see you getting dirty, sweating, hauling buckets. It shows sacrifice the way Jesus taught us. He wants us to connect with the land and with the people. We are doing that here in the garden.”